In Slipspace approaching 111 Tauri System, May 25, 2545. 0930 local, UNSC Hercules Hangar Deck.
Whiskey Zero-Seven-Seven lurched as the vertical thrusters on the wing nacelles and the high tail extending over the crew ramp, roared to life. The sound was music to his ears. An ear splitting rumble that was more like a warm blanket of comfort to him, than the vectorable VTOL hellfire that it really was. As he hit the controls to close the crew ramp and seal the Pelican against the noise and the vacuum of space, he watched the ODSTs shift uncomfortably, strapped tightly into their jump-seats. All but one of them. Crew Chief Steven ‘Sparky’ Mitchell watched the squad’s Lieutenant casually fiddling with his helmet as if nothing else was happening, while his squad collectively gripped what they could just a little tighter.
“We have a hard seal Captain. Troopers are secure. Board is Green” Sparky squawked into his helmet intercom.
“Copy that Sparky. C’mon up and grab the back seat. I want you strapped in for this run. It’s going to get hairy.”
“On my way Cap,” Sparky replied, then made his way up the Blood Tray to the cockpit. He strapped in to the third seat behind the side-by-side Pilot and Co-Pilot and gave a ‘thumbs up’ as Captain Rich ‘Moses’ Forrester glanced back. He then reached out with his right hand and tapped the flight helmet of the co-pilot ‘Chuckles’. Lieutenant Joe Bergman got that call sign because he was the grumpiest, humorless bastard in the whole Navy. And Sparky just loved to push his buttons. Today it was the helmet tap and it was working.
“Sparky, cut that shit out! I’m trying to finish pre-flight!”
“Just making sure you’re in there co-cheese. Besides, we’re locked tight. Everything’s warm-fuzzy.”
“Ok enough you two,” Moses barked, "this is not a fun run so let’s get tight. Chuckles, this is going to be one of the fastest inserts we’ve ever done so I want all your attention on the system sensors. Especially heat and plating. Sparky, ECM, you know the drill. Tell me everything that pops up no matter what it is. Remember the briefing; hot insert and dustoff with high probability of AA and ground contact. Do it right and we’ll be back in the barn before dinner.“
Sparky immediately got to business pulling up the Electronic Countermeasures display at his back seat. The time for fun was over, this was why he joined the Navy, this is what made him feel alive.
“Hang on guys, Shaw-Fujikawa offline in ten seconds,” came the voice of the flight-deck controller over the radio, “Hanger doors in fifteen.”
The gut-wrenching feeling of hitting a brick wall at the speed of sound, without the pain or moving an inch, was the cue that they were five seconds from seeing what it was like outside. As the thought was forming in his head, the Pelican roared to full possible power while parked in a hanger, as Moses readied for launch. The doors opened and Moses eased the vertical thrust up and pitched the nose forward heading right for the still opening doors. They reached their full aperture just as W-077 reached the opening and Moses punched it to full throttle, pushing Sparky back into his seat with enough oomph that he needed to take a deep breath to recover from the jolt.
As the dropship accelerated into the outer atmosphere, Sparky looked up briefly from the ECM controls to steal a glance forward. He could see visually what his sensors were telling him, that they were headed directly into a pitched battle on the planet’s surface. Victoria colony was only a single settlement and city with a UNSC base, and right now the covenant were attacking with ground troops and aerial bombardment, while the Marines stationed there tried their valiant best to defend and get as many colonists to the escape transports as possible.
“We’re approaching one hundred percent on safe hull plating operational temperatures, Cap!” Chuckles shouted over the roar of re-entry.
“Heading directly for shit soup captain!” Sparky said, “I’ve got numerous small craft in the air around Camp Phoenix, and multiple ground engagements. Covenant AA emplacements are already up and active around the city. Plotting you a new course away from the heaviest AA. Takes us in low and fast counterclockwise toward the camp. A wide arc. Low buildings, should be able to maintain high burn. On screen now.”
“One hundred ten percent! Plating holding! Engines at full Military power, running hot, but nominal!” Chuckles updated.
“Ok here we go,” Moses barked, “Entering lower Atmo. We’ll be taking fire soon so stay frosty, but they’ll have to catch us first. Chuckles, Light the afterburners on my mark. Leveling out… three, two, one. MARK.”
Chuckles jabbed at the throttle control display and the already speeding Pelican kicked into another gear with a satisfying new note in the engine cacophony directly over their heads. Moses started his wide left sweeping arc approaching the base, under full burn, the G-force increasing as he wrestled the stick into compliance gradually tightening the big turn.
The Covenant were taking pot-shots at them but the ground forces were missing at this speed. It was mostly an annoyance. Like flying through heavy turbulence. Small arms fire, lower power plasma hits. Enough to make it a bumpy ride, but Oh-Seven-Seven was holding her own.
“LZ waypoint on Screen, ten clicks. Three minutes.” Chuckles called over the shipwide comm so those sorry S.O.B.s in back could get ready to walk into hellfire and damnation.
“Standby to cut the blowers. I want to get a little closer before I bleed any speed. Descending to 100 meters,” Moses Replied, “N.O.E.”
Sparky was watching the sensors as they got lower and closer when Moses gave the signal to reduce speed and begin landing procedures. He was just about to reply that sensors looked clear and the LZ was two clicks and closing, when the ECM board lit up like a Christmas tree and warning klaxons blared into his helmet.
“INCOMING PLASMA!” he shouted a split second before the ship was rocked by the directed energy impact. The Pelican yawed to port as the explosion dissipated across the hull. The sharp increase of temperature could be felt as the superheated plasma attempted to rip the ship apart. Moses struggled to control the flat spin as everyone shouted all at once.
“…was a Banshee! Port side!”
“… –cking EMP! Shielding held – Electronics and controls are all up, but we’re losing engine power!”
“…Vertical thrust offline! I can reroute maneuvering, but we’re descending fast!”
“…Find me a clearing!”
“…Ten degrees to starboard! Empty street, open square!”
“…Belly landing, hold on!”
“…We’re too fast, Cap!”
The Pelican straightened out just as the belly of the ship touched the paved street with a bone-crunching impact, bouncing a couple of times like a big skipping stone on a pond. Moses was expertly using the vectoring thrusters to keep the ship from rolling as it slid through the streets with an ear-shattering screech, across an open roundabout, through an empty playground, eventually coming to rest facing back the way it came, tail just resting against a small building. Then the engines sputtered completely out with one final cough of vapor from the turbines.
“Everybody ok?” Moses shouted.
“I’m good Cap,” Sparky replied, “Gonna bruise like a peach though.”
“Chuckles? Chuckles!?” There was blood coming from Chuckles’ mouth and nose, chin pointed at his chest, and his visor was cracked.
“I got him Cap,” Sparky said already unbuckled and checking Chuckles’ vitals. “He’s ok. Vitals are good, he’s just out. Something in the cabin must not have been secured and hit him." Sparky glanced around quickly, "Yep, looks like it was this.” He picked up an emergency transceiver that had dislodged from the cabin wall and must have clocked Chuckles in the face on the way down. “Prolly broke his nose. He’s gonna be even uglier!”
“All right,” Moses said, all business, “I’ll take him from here, grab me that medkit." Sparky reached behind the Co-pilot seat and pulled down the standard flight med-kit and handed it to Moses. "Now get back there and get those men off the bird, tell them this is as close as we get and…”
“Sir the board just lit up!" Sparky interrupted, "We got multiple ground contacts approaching!”
“Shit, we need time to get the engines back on line. Go ask our friends back there nicely if they wouldn’t mind some target practice while we try to restart, or we’re all gonna be stuck here as guests of the covenant! And then get going on the restart!”
“YES SIR!” Sparky shouted back, halfway to the troop compartment. The ODST squad was already unstrapped, standing, and frankly looking pretty mean when Sparky entered. He hit the control to lower the crew ramp and gave the news to the Lieutenant while the big ramp slowly descended.
“Sir, as you may have guessed, we’re a little short of the intended LZ. We took a direct plasma hit from a banshee, that popped the main turbines, we did our best imitation of a falling brick, and here we are. Moses did some pretty amazing jockeying to get us down here in one piece, but now we have Covies on the scope heading in a pointedly us direction, and I have to get the burners fired back up. Think you gents can hold off our guests till we’re airborne? That way you’ll have a ride available to pick you up when you call. Otherwise, I hope you like Hinge-head food, whatever that is…”
“Troopers,” the lieutenant rumbled, “Let’s get a perimeter set up, see what we have for cover, and set up a field of fire. Grim see how high you can get, I want to know what’s coming. Let’s give these boys the time they need, and show some POS aliens that nobody messes with the Corps. Fall out!”
Sparky watched them run out into the Victoria air, each carrying enough armor and weaponry for two normal ground-pounders. He closed and secured the troop compartment and went right to work popping the ceiling maintenance access hatch and starting the manual restart sequence on the emergency panel.
Then the shooting started. He could hear the staccato report of UNSC weapons fire outside the ship’s hull. That one was a DMR for sure. And was that a shotgun? Man those are some crazy jarheads out there. You have to really get up close and personal with one of those things, Sparky thought while forcing the Engine Start subroutine to skip the anti-stall procedure and go right to dumping primer fuel into the injectors. Fire it up and get power, then worry about safety. This was battle and you learned tricks like this only out here and not in training. He flipped the turbine control to hot start just as a huge BOOM went off outside. “What was that!?” he called into the intercom.
“Just one of the boys lighting a candle,” Moses replied, “Looked like a nice hit too. What’s your status back there!?”
“Primed on the starboard turbine, give ‘er a go!”
The batteries started the turbine spinning and as it gained RPM, Sparky waited for the exact moment to let the ignition fire, ignoring the computer’s prompts that he was holding down the manual kill function. But if he choked it out now, they were really screwed. The sound of the blades inside the chamber was was just right and when he took his finger off of the ignition override he was greeted with the sound of highly refined rocket fuel hitting the injectors and igniting.
“Number one is up, Cap! Give it some throttle!”
The engine started to whine as it increased power with Moses’ input. “Looks good Sparky… WOAH taking fire up here! Uh, Whiskey Oh-Seven-Seven to O’Grady, I’m taking direct fire to the canopy up here. Can you get the bugs off of my windshield? … … Copy, thank you! Sparky, it’s getting hot up here, get started on Number Two now. Those a-holes are peppering the cockpit like its goddamn target practice… Shit – Grenade!”
There was a muffled WHUMP that reverberated through the ship that Sparky also could hear on the intercom. “We ok Cap?”
“Yeah. That was actually one of the boys. It wasn’t thrown as close as it looked. Took out a couple of grunts. Got a couple pings on the hull. Probably more grunt slime than anything else. Now, give me Two ASAP!”
Sparky had started the same engine start sequence on the port-side turbine and called to Moses to hit the starter. He waited again to get the timing just right and let the injectors hot-start the turbine.
“Flame-out! She stalled on ignition Cap! Trying again!
“Sparky, don’t make me come back there! We need to LEAVE!”
“Roger that, wait one…” Sparky scrambled to clear the injectors and purge the black smoke that was billowing out of the turbine exhaust.
“Unnnh, What hit me?” it was Chuckles’ voice in his earpiece.
“I did,” Moses replied, “for bitching about my airspeed. Hey Sparky, you’re right, he is uglier!”
“Screw you both.”
“Good to have you back with us Chuckles! And I mean that, who else would I have to make fun of! Cap, Injectors are clear, spin Two!”
This time when Sparky dumped the injectors, Number Two fired with the satisfying roar of a controlled explosion. Sparky closed the maintenance hatch and sped up to his back seat in the cockpit. “Full Power Captain, your bird!”
Moses grabbed a fist full of throttle and jerked the collective. The pelican jumped three meters and hovered. “Hey Chuckles, since you’re up, and the Chin-gun is now free, you feel up to smoking those three pinheads out there as a thanks to our friends?”
The Chin-mounted M370 Autocannon was now fully articulate since the Pelican was off its belly and airborne. Chuckles thumbed the safety and fired a salvo of 70mm depleted uranium slugs into the three remaining enemies that ODSTs had engaged; a trio of Kig-yar that were completely ripped apart by the power of the Pelican’s autocannon.
“Whiskey Oh-Seven-Seven to O’Grady. We’re out of here. We’ll be at the rendezvous LZ, T-minus five minutes from your call. Thanks for helping out, see you on the other side. Moses out.”
Moses dialed full lift and a one-eighty turn, and then punched his horizontal thrust to max. Sparky sat back into his seat and tried to let some of the adrenaline wash out of him. Now they were headed to the ‘safe’ LZ way outside of the settlement and were supposed to lay low until they got the call to pick up the ODSTs. He wanted to just relax and give the engines a full diagnostic after the hot-restarts and listen to their melodic whine. But he just knew that he would be tending to Chuckles new face and listening to a completely different kind of whine…